I've never had a real herb garden. I've had chives in a pot, thyme and rosemary plants that never overwinter, and a patch of oregano that spreads like the plague. I even managed to kill mint! Apparently this is a nearly impossible feat.
But this year is the year I'm changing that. Last fall I tossed my chives and thyme into the ground in the greenhouse to overwinter. That led to the exciting discovery that in that little micro-climate, they produced all year round! So the other day I rounded their corner out with mint, oregano, and sage. Soon to come: cilantro, dill, parsley, and rosemary.
I have to admit—this herb fever comes at least ninety-five percent from my obsession with Jerusalem. Every recipe in that book is a) delicious and b) jam-packed with herbs, and herbs are a) expensive and b) annoying to have to plan for. If I want to make conchiglie with yogurt, peas, & basil on the regular—and I do, desperately—then it's high time for a real herb garden.
The plans I like come from an article in Mother Earth News. You don't necessarily need plans to start an herb garden, but I like the idea of getting a little advice. Here's what I've gleaned. Plant herbs as close as possible to your kitchen. Make sure there's a walkway—you'll probably often be in your slippers, and you don't want to trek through wet grass, snow, etc. Put spreaders like mint and oregano in buried pots. Leave space for annuals. Taste before you buy—there are all kinds of different varieties, and you want to make sure you're getting one you like. Remember, these are for cooking! And finally, herbs need full sun. That's the important stuff.
The other important thing is to remember to cook with herbs. People don't use as many herbs as they used to—at least not in mainstream American cooking—and Ottolenghi's book has been an important reminder for me of how delicious using lots of herbs can be. Ever since I made his Arugula, Artichoke, & Herb Salad I've been putting mint and cilantro in all my salads. It's a nice change. And the other day, I tried his recipe for spanikopita-style herb pie. That did it. It is rich and savory and full of flavor—the kind of meal you can eat over and over again. There will be herbs in the garden from now on.
SPANIKOPITA-STYLE HERB PIE
This recipe is adapted from Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. It has all the comfort of a traditional spanikopita but a little more jazz.
extra virgin olive oil
1 large onions, peeled and diced
1 pound Swiss chard or spinach, finely chopped
3 stalks celery, thinly sliced
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 cups arugula
2/3 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
2/3 cup chopped mint
1/2 cup chopped dill
3/4 ricotta cheese
3/4 cup grated cheddar
1/2 cup feta
zest of 1 lemon
2 large eggs
1/3 teaspoon fine-grain sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
9 ounces filo pastry
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Pour 2 tablespoons olive oil into a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Add the onion and sauté over low heat for 8-10 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the celery and cook another few minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the chard and turn the heat up to medium-high. When it starts to wilt down add the scallions, arugula, and herbs and cook for another 1-2 minutes. Turn off the heat and transfer everything to a colander.
When the mixture is cool, wring out as much water as possible. Put the greens in a mixing bowl along with the three cheeses, lemon zest, eggs, salt, and pepper. Mix well.
Get out a square casserole pan and lay a piece of filo over the bottom. The sides should hang over the edges of the pan. Brush the filo with olive oil and layer it with 4 more sheets, brushing each with oil as you work. Spoon in the herb and cheese filling. Fold the edges of the pastry over the filling, then layer another 5 pieces of filo on top, brushing with oil as you go. Tuck in the edges and brush the top layer generously with olive oil. Bake for 40 minutes, until the pastry turns golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.